History Trivia #1: The Caning of Sumner was a Class Insult and Old Pistol Ammo was Confusing

Source: http://what-when-how.com/martial-arts/dueling-martial-arts/

During an internet trawl, I found the above website about dueling customs. It is worth a read in it’s entirety, but I wanted to discuss a few details in depth.

Note: the source page had no bibliography, and I am not an expert, so consider all of this speculative until proven otherwise.

The Caning of Sumner was a Class Insult

Formal duels have always struck me as oddly educational. You can study them in any discipline and learn something: ethnography and social mores, psychology*, technology, the history of states and law enforcement – the list goes on. Perhaps this is because paradoxes tend to be educational, and duels are a paradox: they are very artificial and very raw, the most and least pretentious activity.

Dueling’s greatest lesson for me is a reminder that Western honor culture used to exist. Honor has always meant having the integrity to do the right thing, but the meaning of “the right thing” and the consequences for failure have changed dramatically.

What was “the right thing”? Honor was a willingness to defend whatever established your social class. If your class was defined by owning land, that meant literally defending your property. But class was often about reputation. Sometimes this meant your professional reputation: a military officer had to defend the symbols of his unit, and a judge had to defend his impartiality, and so on. More often it meant your family reputation**. If you let someone insult your cousin, you must not be a very good cousin. This attitude will come up again soon.

The honor mindset, as far as I can fathom, was that a man who wouldn’t risk violence to address an insult was admitting that he didn’t care about the thing being insulted, and therefore didn’t deserve it. It also implied that he wouldn’t protect anything else he valued. He was untrustworthy. In a violent world, a readiness to violence was the root of all stability.

Since the main point of dueling was to confirm your class credentials in the face of insults, you were only supposed to duel your own class***. You had no right to challenge your superiors because you didn’t have the power to shame them. And challenging your inferiors meant admitting they could shame you.

But what if a noble was insulted by a peasant? How could the noble respond? Rich people had a solution: instead of a duel, the trick was to assault the peasant with a cane or a horsewhip. The choice of weapon was important; a sword wound might give the plebs lofty ideas. Canes and whips were degrading.

That brings us to the caning of Senator Charles Sumner in 1856, which I now appreciate for not being a duel. Sumner was an abolitionist from the North. His attacker, Representative Preston Brooks, was a Southern slavery advocate. American students are taught that Sumner gave an abolitionist speech, so Brooks attacked Sumner with a cane, nearly killing him, and this was a landmark in the breakdown of civil negotiation that resulted in the American Civil War.

That’s all true. But the less-taught details are interesting. For one thing, Sumner’s speech called out slaveholders by name, including Brooks’ relative. To quote the source website:

Sumner, in a speech, had used such words as “harlot,” “pirate,” “falsifier,” “assassin,” and “swindler” to describe elderly South Carolina senator Andrew Pickens Butler. Preston Brooks, Butler’s nephew, sought out Sumner and is reputed to have said: “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech carefully, and with as much calmness as I could be expected to read such a speech. You have libeled my State, and slandered my relation, who is aged and absent, and I feel it to be my duty to punish you for it.” The punishment followed, and Sumner was caned senseless.

Fun fact: according to Wikipedia, Senator Stephen Douglas, who was also a subject of criticism during the speech, suggested to a colleague while Sumner was orating that “this damn fool [Sumner] is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool.”

Less fun fact: the attacker Brooks also had a buddy, Representative Laurence Keitt, who threatened the Senate with a pistol during the attack so no one would interfere****.

But perhaps the most fascinating part of the episode is that Brooks didn’t challenge Sumner to a duel. To a southern gentleman, this could not have been an accident. The choice certainly wasn’t spontaneous: the attack happened days after the speech. The caning was deliberate.

What was Brooks thinking? By the 1850s, the formal duel was dying in the South and dead in the North, and he probably feared the northerner Sumner might refuse. Perhaps Brooks didn’t want to kill and thought a caning was less lethal. Or he may have been a coward and didn’t want Brooks to shoot back.

However, the website argues that he chose a cane over a pistol to send a message: a cane is what a man of breeding used to punish lesser men. This was an established form of insult.

Old Pistol Ammo was Confusing

The source website also has a few passages about the duels of Andrew Jackson. I won’t say much, except that there was an incident that General Jackson, quote:

… [A]ttempted in 1813 to horsewhip H. Benton, a future U.S. senator, but Benton reached for a pistol while Jackson dropped the whip and drew his own firearm. Benton’s younger brother Jesse, who had the grudge against Jackson, was on the scene; he shot Jackson with a pistol loaded with a slug of lead and two bullets. Jackson’s shoulder was shattered and his left arm pierced, but he refused amputation. Fifteen years later, when both Andrew and  were U.S. senators, they became reconciled. During Jackson’s presidency (1829-1837), Benton was a staunch supporter, and on Jackson’s death in 1847 Benton eulogized him. Both Jackson and Benton killed men in duels.

Each sentence here deserves it’s own essay, but I want to focus on the two details.

First, here’s another example of whipping to insult a social peer. This supports the idea that Brooks’ action was a standard insult four decades later.

Second, how was a pistol loaded with “a slug of lead and two bullets”?

My layman’s understanding is that, at least for American history, most firearms fired a single projectile (a bullet, shell, etc.) out of a barrel. The only exception I know was the blunderbuss, which fired several loose projectiles like grapeshot, but it was not a pistol.

I know multi-barrel pistols existed, but I assume the slug wasn’t the same size and shape as the bullets (slugs, I understand, are solid rounds fit for shotguns). So either one pistol had multiple barrels with different sizes, or the slug and bullets were stuffed in a single barrel, blunderbuss-style.

It seems strange that a pistol had a random mish-mash of ammunition all at once. If anyone has insight on this, please share.

* I think some of the most emotional scenes ever filmed were duels: see Barry Lyndon, Kurosawa’s samurai films, Leone’s cowboy films, or the Star Wars saga.

** Gentlemen in all walks of life were supposed to protect ladies, and it seems they did take that seriously, but the definitions of “protect” and “ladies” varied.

*** It wasn’t necessary to be a noble to duel, certainly not in America. A knife fight between two pig farmers in the backwoods of Kentucky could have been a duel. The combatants may have even followed a formal dueling code (there were several). The important thing would have been that the combatants were peers, and their duel earned them the respect of their class, presumably fellow pig farmers.

**** Non-American legislatures are often noted to be louder (eg, the UK) and more violent (eg, South Korea) than the US Congress. This is a fun reversal of stereotypes, but it is worth remembering that while Congress has an excellent record for collegiality and decorum, that record is not perfect.

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